Thursday 22 March 2018

Vincent Hogan: Billy Walsh is fighting for the right to do his job better

Ireland boxing coach coach Billy Walsh
Ireland boxing coach coach Billy Walsh
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Something new happened this week in the wretchedly old story of Irish boxing's delinquent inability to respect its most precious people.

Some boxers raised their voices. Historically, this has been a rarity because so many of our toughest sports people were inclined to fear expressions of candour might carry a threat of long-term repercussion. But both Darren O'Neill and Michael Conlan broke ranks with that tradition.

They went on record about the prospect of Billy Walsh being lost to a High Performance Programme that is, effectively, their place of employment.

O'Neill, Ireland's boxing captain at the London Olympics, responded to news that Walsh looks set to leave for a post in America by likening it to "Brian Cody leaving Kilkenny a few weeks before the All-Ireland." He suggested that to allow it happen would be "madness".

And Conlan, recently crowned European champion and already qualified for next year's Olympics in Rio, warned that Walsh's loss to High Performance would, almost certainly, hasten his own flight to join older brother, Jamie, in the professional ranks. The Belfast bantamweight described Walsh and Georgian coach, Zaur Antia, as "the backbone of Irish boxing".

Read more: Treacy calls on IABA to make last-ditch bid to secure Walsh

Darren O'Neill, Ireland
Darren O'Neill, Ireland

It is unlikely such comments will have been welcomed by the Irish Amateur Boxing Association, from whom there has - as yet - been no response to the story of a coach wanted, it seems, everywhere bar home.

Nowhere else in the broad, teeming universe of Irish sport is there such a consistent thread of friction between those who administer and those who win. Last Saturday, the Irish Sports Council believed that a deal had been brokered with the IABA to keep Billy Walsh at home. That deal was to be funded, in its entirety, by the Council.

Yet, by Tuesday, the IABA position had - inexplicably - cartwheeled. Why?

There has been newspaper speculation since on the salary available to Walsh should he take up the US offer as if it represented some kind of benchmark for what was needed to keep him in Ireland.

Yet, the deal agreeable to both Walsh and the Sports Council last weekend was not, I understand, in the same financial ballpark as that on offer to him in the US.

This story has NEVER been about money.

Walsh is a man who sold his own business in 2003 so that he could work full-time in Irish boxing at a salary reputedly worth half of what he was previously earning.

Billy Walsh celebrates with Michael Conlan after the Belfast boxer’s victory in the final at the European Championships earlier this month
Billy Walsh celebrates with Michael Conlan after the Belfast boxer’s victory in the final at the European Championships earlier this month

He is battling, essentially, for the right to do his job without obstruction and administrative hostility, obstacles that have been constant since he took charge of the High Performance Programme following Gary Keegan's departure to the Institute of Sport in 2008.

That battle seems nowhere close to a conclusion.

The IABA's attitude towards High Performance, 12 years after the latter's inception, remains extraordinarily old-world and petty. It is as if they almost resent the kudos falling the way of coaches like Walsh, Antia and Pete Taylor, not to mention the boxers themselves.

Walsh has always gone to great pains to emphasise the team effort required for preparing Irish boxers to the remarkable standards now considered commonplace. During the London Games, he was especially keen for journalists to focus on the technical input of Georgian, Antia.

The IABA's own website now refers to Ireland as a "world boxing powerhouse" and that is no vacuous boast.

Ireland, after all, finished second in the medals table at the recent European Championships in Bulgaria and, before that, third at the European Games in Azerbaijan.

In both instances, they were closely followed by Britain. Indeed, in terms of total medals won, the British team's six in Bulgaria (four silver) represented the most prolific haul of all.

It would be a surprise if Government eyes here are not now drawn to the impressive strides being made across channel.

Here, the Sports Council has always refused to interfere in the governance of individual sports federations - hence their reluctance, until last night, to comment publicly this week. Billy Walsh, after all, is employed by the IABA.

But given a seemingly endless history of conflict with boxing's governing body here, there must be a growing sense of the British model being the one to follow now.

Some time after setting up High Performance in the UK, a Government decision was taken to separate it from the British Amateur Boxing Association.

Today, it is High Performance alone - through a head coach and three senior assistants - that selects GB teams for competition. That kind of authority, the right simply to pick Irish teams rather than have selections imposed from above, is at the nub of Billy Walsh's frustration today.

My understanding is that he has not, as yet, resigned his position. What we do not know is if anybody within the IABA particularly cares.

Irish Independent

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